What Happens When the Drilling Crews Leave?
What happens when the drilling crews leave? A Partial description of what happens when your Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Well ceases production
by Jennifer J. Halpern, PhD
The previous article in this series described what landowners can expect when a company drills for and produces natural gas in a well in the Marcellus Shale. This article describes what landowners may be able to expect when teh gas company restores the property.
The Setting - If your land was used for placement of a wellpad for drilling, it probably experienced many of the following changes (see the previous article for information, sources, and additional details:)
- Trees are gone.
- A wide, thick road leads across the parcel to the wellpad from a nearby road
- Contours of the land are evened out; the pad is on a flat area.
- An approximately 5-acre pad of packed stone and cement supports an industrial work area.
- The pad serves as home to as many to 50-100 tanks during the drilling phase. These include brine holding tanks, with separator cylinders attached, and expansion tanks for water from the well. The pad also houses trucks for transporting brine tanks. A typical Marcellus pad may hold approximately 7-12 well heads, each about 6-8 feet high.
- An 8-foot high chain link fence and other security measures may surround the well heads, about 100 - 200 feet away from them (1).
- In some cases, the company may have dug a lined holding pit, measuring 200 feet long and wide, and 20-40 feet deep. In a few cases, the company may have previously emptied and restored the pit.
Early Stages of Reclamation - A typical Marcellus well will likely produce for between 30-50 years. The first stages of reclamation, therefore, occur after the drilling is completed, but while production is still under way. The first focus for reclamation is on the area around the perimeter of the wellpad. After drilling is completed, for example, if the company decides it won't need holding pits, these will be drained and restored with dirt and fill. If the company is using a closed-loop system, brine is removed from the well pad as needed and dictated by the drilling and hydraulic fracturing schedule.
The company will clean the perimeter of the well pad and restore it to a natural appearance; a meadow is likely to be reseeded around the pad. However, trees are not planted at this point, and the contours of the area are not restured.
Final Stages of Reclamation - The final stages of reclamation begin at teh end of the useful life of the well. At that point, a cement cap plugs the bore hole. According to Mark Scheuerman, director of government and media relations for Talisman Energy, teh well will be "abandoned in strict compliance with state laws governing that procedure. These laws are very precise and subject plumbing, abandonment, and reclamation procedures for State inspection and are designed to insure no issues occur." (2)
He adds, "Once properly plugged and abandoned pursuant to the requirements of State law, we believe the risk of leakage or undue pressure is quite remote. During our experience in drilling, completing, producing, reclaming, and abandoning hundreds of wells in New York and Pennsylvania, we have not experienced any undue risk factors that would dictate the need for further monitoring once the plug, abandon, and reclamation process has been properly completed. In addition, the natural gas industry as a whole has followed these procedures on thousands of wells with the same results." (3)
The company dismantles the well pad after they cap the well bore. The remnants of the pad are trucked away, and the area is restored with clean dirt and fill. Original land contours are generally returned. Time required for deconstruction varies, but typically takes several weeks. The topography of the land and terms of the lease may extend the process, and dictate how many loads of fill are required.
Landowners can generally expect the company to replant the area with DEC-approved plants; the landholders can choose from among these, and can opt to reseed with trees of their own choice to create new havens for wildlife or for logging.
After the Gas Company Leaves - The roads were constructed for access to the well pad over private lands become the landowner's property at the end of the well's life. If the lease specifies, the company will dismantle the road and remove the debris. Otherwise, the landowner can choose to maintain it, or to allow it to disintegrate over time.
According to Scheuerman, several eyars after the final reclamation, there should be no evidence that there was ever a well pad and many wells on the property. Only historical maps would show where the holding pits were dug, or the actual location of each well bore. Landowners might want to keep these historical records for future reference.
Potential Delays to Reclamation - Some leases permit "infill drilling," the addition of new wells in an existing field. This may happen at any time during the leased period, if it's considered economic to accelerate recovery of the gas. Under most leases, the development of an additional well may extend the lease term, according to Ellen Harrison of fleased.org. (4)
According to Brad Gill of IOGANY (5), drilling new wells on a parcel requires the same investment of equipment, manpower, and bustle as the first set of wells; new roadways may also have to be trenched and set. IT's usually better financially for the natural gas company to trill all the wells at the same time whenever possible. However, regulations change over time, and drilling may reveal more opportunities to the operators. Flexible terms in a lease will allow the company to adapt to those rules. One potential example of how infill drilling may affect some landowners: Marcellus well pads in New York State are currently located 160 to 320 acres apart; but it is anticipated that 40 to 80 acre spacing can be expected at a later date. (6)
Opportunities and Challenges
Natural gas from the MArcellus offers drilling companies, landholders and natural gas consumers alike may experience potentially amazing opportunities, including the hope of protecting some of our energy supply on our own shores. The possibility of natural gas being a "greener" solution than oil or coal remains tantalizing. The possibility of responsible drilling going hand in hand with community and environmental stewardship might yet become a reality.
1. Mark Scheuerman, Talisman Energy. Email correspondence, December 21, 2010.
2. Mark Scheuerman, Talisman Energy. Email correspondence, November 29, 2010.
4. www.fleased.org represents a group of landholders in Central New York who leased mineral rights before the extent of the treat to the environment and to communities was completely understood. Its founder is Ellen Harrison, environmental scientist and landowner.
5. IOGANY is the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York State. Gill, a petroleum geologist, consults to oil and gas companies, and is a partner in a drilling company that operates in NY and PA, but not in the Marcellus Shale.
6. Moss, Kerry. 2008. "Potential Development of the Natural Gas Resources in the Marcellus Shale." National Park Service Geologic Resources Division. www.eesi.psu.edu/news_events/EarthTalks/2009Spring/materials2009spr/NatParkService-GRD-M-Shale_12-11-2008_view.pdf